Symbols as Cultural Boundary Markers
Last Monday I wrote a post entitled “Fourfold Worldview.” In that post I quoted, at length, a section of N.T. Wrights book The New Testament and the People of God. In that quote Wright lays out what he believes to be the four parts that make up a worldview: story, questions, symbols, and praxis. In today’s post I want to look at that Wright quote again. But this time I want to focus in a particular section of the quotation, the section on symbol.
In the last post I stated that our culture has little to no self-awareness. Further, I noted that understanding how worldviews work is important for societies to be able to root out sinful tendencies in their own culture. As I looked over the quotation from Wright the section on symbols really stood out to me. Wright notes that symbols serve as a type of boundary marker for cultures. Here’s the quote:
All cultures produce and maintain symbols; they can often be identified when challenging them produces anger or fear. Such symbols often function as social and or cultural boundary-markers: those who observe them are insiders, those who do not are outsiders. And these symbols, as the acted and visible reminders of a worldview that normally remains too deep for casual speech, form the actual grid through which the world is perceived. They determine how, from day to day, human beings will view the whole of reality. They determine what will, and what will not, be intelligible or assimilable within a particular culture. (pg. 123-124)
It is really the first two sentences of this quotation that stand out to me as revealing to our society in particular. Take a few seconds to think of a couple things that tend to produce anger or fear when they are challenged in our culture. Personally, as I read this quotation for the first time it was our culture's exaltation of war and the military that stood out to me.
Questioning or challenging the validity of America’s military-industrial complex will quickly raise the temperatures in almost any conversation. Further, the symbolism surrounding America’s military is not only pervasive but also deep and culturally entrenched. There is a specific cultural narrative that surrounds our nation's military exploits. From religious overtones to liturgical holidays, the symbols surrounding America’s military are some of the most powerful in our society.
Those who observe these symbols are "insiders" in our society while those who question them are automatically deemed as outsiders, unpatriotic or even potential traitors. The mercurial responses given toward those who question America’s military seem to prove that it stands as a symbol of ultimate importance concerning worldview. Because of this it is important for us to see the power that this symbol may be holding over certain aspects of our thinking.
I’m sure there are many other symbols that bring up a similar reactions to that of the military that are worth discussing. If you can think of any be sure to leave a comment below and perhaps I’ll flesh out some thoughts about it in a future post.
Food for thought.